As Japanese brewing regulations relaxed in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t uncommon for large Japanese resort companies to open breweries. One such brewery, Harvestmoon, is owned and operated by Oriental Land Company (OLC), which runs the Disney theme parks in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture.
Harvestmoon’s connection to Disney is fitting, since the story of its master brewer, Tomoko Sonoda, sounds like a fairy tale.
In 1996, OLC was expanding, with Ikspiari, an upscale shopping mall and gateway to the parks, to open in 2000 and Tokyo DisneySea following in 2001. The company wanted a brewery to supply restaurants and hotels around the parks and at select sites in the new DisneySea complex. Sonoda, then a parking attendant, decided to apply. Competing for the position against a pool of nearly 40 other OLC employees, Sonoda was nervous.
“When they asked me why I wanted to work in the brewery,” Sonoda says, “of course, I told them I loved beer. But I also told them that I wanted a challenge, and to see if I could make something new.” Her earnest reply impressed, and Sonoda was selected to become the head brewer.
In the four years between getting the job and the brewery opening in Ikspiari’s Roti’s House restaurant, Sonoda lived a beer lover’s dream: studying brewing domestically and abroad, becoming a certified beer judge, gaining experience by assisting at breweries and, of course, sampling many varieties of beer.
This methodical approach was Harvestmoon’s saving grace: While Sonoda studied brewing, many other breweries, having rushed into production with inexperienced brewers, opened and closed before Harvestmoon even brewed its first beer.
“At the time, almost everyone in Japan was brewing the same three German beers — alt, helles and weizen. While I was in Europe, I drank so many different styles of beer, and I realized we needed to have five regular varieties of beers in order to show our customers a wider range of possibilities,” Sonoda recalls.
In the Czech Republic, Sonoda had the chance to drink U Fleku’s famous dark lager, and fell in love. “I knew I wanted to make something similar: a smooth, easy-drinking dark beer, but not a stout or anything sweet.” After some experimentation, Harvestmoon’s schwarz, one of the brewery’s most well-regarded beers, was born.
Other beers in the standard lineup represent not only Sonoda’s personal taste, but also her keen understanding of Harvestmoon’s customer base. “Most of the people who come to Roti’s House are here as tourists. For many of them, our beer is their first experience with craft beer, and they might be turned off by beers with high alcohol or strong, hoppy flavors. Most of these customers normally drink standard Japanese lagers, and they often ask for those, or something similar.” Typically, customers will start with the Harvestmoon pilsner, which accounts for more than half of the brewery’s annual 100 kiloliter production.
According to Sonoda, most of Harvestmoon’s beer is sold at Roti’s House, as well as other cafes and hotels throughout Disney’s resorts. The remaining 15 percent of its beer is sold to craft beer bars, or is available in bottles in department stores and liquor shops in Chiba Prefecture.
Although the brewery’s 20th anniversary is in 2020, there is some concern about its future. In 2018, Ikspiari and OLC made the decision to sell-off the restaurants operating in the mall, including Roti’s House. “Seeing as we aren’t really a restaurant managing company, we saw a chance to have experts come in to improve things for us, and therefore, our guests as well,” explains Ikspiari representative Shuko Nakamura.
While Harvestmoon is still wholly owned by Ikspiari, the restaurant and the brewery are now separate entities. Sonoda admits the move caused some uncertainty, but there haven’t yet been any notable changes in sales or production.
Asked about Harvestmooon’s upcoming anniversary, Sonoda admits she’s been too busy “brewing constantly” to begin planning. It may be her 23rd year on the job, but Sonoda shows no signs of slowing down.
Harvestmoon’s beers are available throughout Tokyo’s Disney resorts. Roti’s House can be found at Ikspiari 4F, 1-4 Maihama, Urayasu, Chiba. For more information, visit www.ikspiari.com/harvestmoon. This is the sixth installment of “Cultivating Craft,” a monthly series exploring the history and evolution of the craft beer scene in Japan.